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Is an EMBA the Best MBA for Executives?

There’s no one-size-fits-all MBA for executives, so consider your options carefully

When considering the best MBA for executives program, an executive MBA (EMBA) immediately comes to mind. After all, the word ‘executive’ is stated in the name of the program. But is an EMBA always the best option for executives? Are executives the only ones getting an EMBA degree?

To get answers to these questions, and to take a closer look at the factors executives should look at when choosing an EMBA program, TopMBA.com spoke to EMBA program directors at UNC Kenan-Flagler and Cornell Johnson.

Are executives the only type of EMBA student?

Although the ‘e’ in EMBA stands for ‘executive’, it doesn’t mean that all EMBA participants are in the upper echelons of management. Many EMBA students are middle managers looking to move up in the ranks of their organization.

Sarah Perez, UNC Kenan-Flagler’s executive director of executive MBA programs until 2017 (and is now the Executive Director of MBA Program Leadership & Student Engagement at the school) said the EMBA cohort features a mix of different management levels. She said: “We certainly have people at very high levels in the organization in our executive MBA programs. We also have people at mid-management level that are getting an executive MBA in order to grow their career.”

Elizabeth Mannix, who served as Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University's associate dean for executive MBA programs until 2017 said that the school’s EMBA cohort has a similar composition. Many of the students in Cornell’s EMBA program manage few direct reports (if any) and are using the degree as a stepping stone towards becoming a key decision maker at their company. At the same time, however, Johnson’s program also has students who are already running their own firm or a division within the company they work for.

Considerations when choosing an MBA for executives

But, in view of the fact that all executives and senior professionals have a very different set of individual circumstances, Perez thinks there is no one-size-fits-all MBA for executives program. Considerations that executives should take into account when assessing their MBA program options include their needs, schedule and level of flexibility, as well as their learning style and what they want to get out of an MBA. “I’d say that the EMBA is a great option, but it’s certainly not the only option,” says Perez.

Do you fit the admissions requirements?

The most straightforward consideration when choosing an MBA for executives is whether or not you meet the admissions requirements for the program. The average EMBA student is around 37 years old and has almost 14 years work experience, according to the EMBA Council’s Membership Program Survey. This means that younger executives may not meet the admissions requirements for a number of EMBA programs. UNC Kenan-Flagler’s EMBA admissions requirements stipulate that applicants should hold at least five years’ prior work experience. Similar to the EMBA Council’s findings, Perez says that the average Kenan-Flagler student is 37 years old, which means there is chance that younger executives might not fit in with the rest of the cohort.

Age and work experience aren’t the only criteria that the admissions committee looks at, however. “We also look at how fast you’ve been promoted and where you are in the organization. In many cases, that makes much more of a difference,” states Cornell Johnson’s Mannix.

This is particularly true when it comes to candidates from outside of the United States. Cornell’s Executive MBA Americas program is offered in Peru and Mexico as well as in the US, and Mannix says that candidates in the Latin American nations can sometimes get promoted faster than their US counterparts. In fact, there are cases where candidates in their late 20s or early 30s are already operating at the executive level. There are also specific industries, such as technology, in which employees are promoted quickly and reach executive level before turning 35. If you fit into that category, then an EMBA could well be the right option for you, even if you are younger than the average candidate.

Can you afford to leave your full-time job?

Of course, anyone who is deciding between a full-time MBA and an executive MBA has to look at the more immediate question of whether or not they are willing to leave their current job in order to pursue their MBA.

“There’s certainly an opportunity cost to getting a full-time MBA. By leaving the workforce for two years, you are giving up a salary,” reasons Cornell’s Mannix. If you have a job you love and you’re doing well, it can also be hard to leave it for two years, even if you are looking to take your career to the next level.

Another thing to consider is how taking time out of the workplace might be perceived by employers. Mannix says that there are some employers who see any break in employment as a negative signal. In addition, if an experienced job candidate chooses to get a full-time MBA and then to take an internship, they may wonder why a candidate is taking a lower-level position.

Are you using the degree for a career transition or to get promoted?

Executives considering an MBA also need to consider their career goals, particularly whether they plan to use the EMBA primarily to accelerate their career, or to enact a career transition. For those planning to switch careers, the full-time MBA and EMBA provide different paths toward career transition. For career switchers in their 30s and 40s, many full-time MBA programs offer something an EMBA doesn’t: A summer internship. The opportunity to restart your career via an internship in the full-time MBA program is a popular option but one which necessitates leaving your current job and proven track record of employment in a specific industry.  

Even so, the lack of an internship doesn’t mean that an EMBA can’t be used towards a career transition. “It takes longer and it certainly is harder to do. But, we absolutely have people who come into the program right away talking to our career services group saying ‘I know I want to transition into a completely different career’ and that certainly is possible,” explains Mannix.

Knowing whether or not you want to transition is an important consideration, because career services vary based on the type of MBA program you choose. In the US, MBA students usually do not get to participate in on-campus recruiting in the same way that full-time students do, since recruiters are generally seeking to fill entry-level management positions designed for full-time MBA graduates. If you’re looking to get promoted from within, however, an EMBA might be a better option because the school’s career services will provide EMBA students with coaching on how to get promoted and negotiate salary rises. That’s why career goals needs to be a primary consideration for executives looking to get an MBA.

Which program fits with your schedule and learning style?

If a full-time MBA is not an option, you need to evaluate how flexible you can be, and whether you might be able to fit evening or weekend classes into your schedule. For example, students in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s EMBA program need to be on campus every third weekend. If that’s not something you can do, then, obviously, the program isn’t the right fit. Three other scheduling considerations are whether or not you need time to travel for work, how much time you need to spend with family and how much spare time you hope to have outside both work and the classroom. If weekends or evenings do not work for you, you also have the option of an asynchronous online MBA program where you can attend class whenever time allows.

The potential attraction of an online program isn’t just a matter of scheduling though. It’s also a matter of learning style. As Perez points out, online MBA students need to be disciplined in order to succeed and not everyone learns well online. In addition, online MBA programs don’t always offer the same networking opportunities as are available during an executive or full-time MBA. Lastly, MBA candidates need to assess what their needs and goals are, in order to figure out how each MBA program fits into that.

Even if an executive does decide on an EMBA, they still have a variety of program formats to choose from. UNC Kenan-Flagler, for example, offers three EMBA formats: Evening, weekend and global. Each program cohort has a distinct composition, depending on region and schedule.

Once you’ve narrowed down your program options, Perez advises that you should, “look at the programs that call out to you and visit.” Finding the right fit is important, so you need to do your due diligence when choosing any format of MBA program.

Other considerations: Coursework and networking

When choosing the right MBA for executives, it’s also important to understand the differences between a full-time MBA and other formats of the degree. While scheduling and student experience levels are the two differences that perhaps receive the largest amount of attention, they aren’t the only factors that distinguish an EMBA from other types of MBAs.

The type of MBA coursework offered is something Mannix cites as one of the main differentiators between an EMBA and other MBA programs. An EMBA and a full-time MBA each come with a different seat of core courses and Mannix feels that EMBA courses place more of an emphasis on skill development.

In addition, while a full-time MBA program may cover the same topics, students often have to wait before they can use them. For example, when full-time students learn about salary negotiation in class, the opportunity to apply this new knowledge only comes when they apply for new jobs or internships. EMBA students, however, can apply those lessons immediately. As a result, Mannix feels that an EMBA offers, “a much more multi-faceted return on your investment.”

Another difference is the type of network you are exposed to during the MBA program. Since the average EMBA student possesses more work experience and is older than the average full-time MBA student, an EMBA gives its students the chance to learn from and network with more experienced people. Indeed, the collective expertise contained within a leading school’s EMBA cohort is something from which all its participants benefit, with this form of ‘in-class’ learning often held up as a key advantage to opting for the executive MBA degree.  

This article was originally published in September 2016 and was updated most recently in June 2020.

Written by Nicole Willson

Nicole is the SEO manager of TopMBA.com, as well as a contributing author. She holds a BA in history and sociology, and a master's in library science. Aside from her work for QS, Nicole is a long-time contributing editor and administrator for WikiHow.

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